Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet, met with media and discussed who he thinks will win this year’s Chase, the tight Nationwide Series battle, the outlook for JR Motorsports in 2013 and other topics.
QUESTION: It seems like you and Brad (Keselowski) came together at the perfect time; you as an owner and him as a driver. In your opinion, who do you think benefited more in that relationship? Brad as the driver or your company JR Motorsports?
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: “Probably definitely Brad, which is fine, it seemed to give him the platform he needed to really showcase his potential and get people, owners like Roger Penske to consider him for Cup level. That is what our company is all about. That is what we enjoy to see happen so it was a success for us, but definitely think it was best for Brad.”
Q: How did it help your company?
DEJ: “We pleased a lot of sponsors with the way Brad ran and the success we had with Brad. It gave our company credibility amongst the competitors and just really raised the moral and got everybody in the shop really fired up with Brad’s ability. When they went to the race track they were excited about their opportunities and changed the culture in the shop quite a bit.”
Q: Why did you choose him?
DEJ: “I liked his family’s history, good hard working racing people. He had worked on all his stuff growing up so he knew how valuable the equipment was, knew how to take care of the equipment and he was quick. He could do things; he was in some of the start and park race cars and qualifying well and racing well. He was great at looking around on the race track for different grooves, different speed and finding speed in the car. Just did a lot of good things.”
Q: Do you have any ideas about the 2013 car? Jeff Burton said he thinks it's going to make a big difference in passing and make the 1.5-mile races more like short tracks.
DEJ: “Yeah, I haven’t tested the car. So I’m not sure what Burton has in mind or what he thinks will help. But hopefully that reveals itself when we start working on the car and I start getting to drive the car.”
Q: Who do you think will win the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup?
DEJ: “Well, it’s between Brad (Keselowski) and Jimmie (Johnson) and I think Jimmie is going to win it. Jimmie is going to be hard to beat. Jimmie is in great equipment. Jimmie has a great race team around him; smart people, and one of the best crew chiefs in the business, and Jimmie is one of the best drivers in the business. It’s going to be hard to beat those guys.”
Q: On Jimmie Johnson going for a sixth title and being one of the best in the sport.
DEJ: “I think he’s been in the conversations. Winning five in a row puts him in the conversation as being one of the guys that’s the best the sport has ever seen. And any success he has beyond that just further strengthens this argument and I think it’s fair to put him in that group and compare him to Richard (Petty) and Cale Yarborough and guys like that; my father, even.”
Q: What is the sense of pride with Brad (Keselowski)? You've talked many times about JR Motorsports being an opportunity for young drivers.
DEJ: “I’m competing against him so I’ve got to look at him really as a competitor, but we have a good friendship and a good amount of respect for each other. That really carries over on to the race track. I enjoy racing with him. He’s a real tough competitor; he races really, really hard. He’s so far removed from his years in the Nationwide Series already in this just short period of time. He’s already carved such a ditch in the Cup Series. Those seem just like memories racing as an owner and him as my driver. It just seems like so long ago already.”
Q: You're a two-time Nationwide Champion. What does it take to be a champion?
DEJ: “In the Nationwide Series?”
Q: In any series.
DEJ: “I can only say what it takes to be a champion in the Nationwide Series because I haven’t won a championship in the Cup Series yet. You’ve got to have a great team around you. You’ve got to have fast race cars and you’ve got to be smart with them. That’s really the basics of it.”
Q: With that series being tied right now, last year coming here there was only eight points difference, is that a good argument that you really don't need a Chase in Cup?
DEJ: “I’m not sure. I think the Chase for the championship really wasn’t to change how the points looked or change how the points are tallied up. I think it was just to drive attention to the fan base and get the fans excited that there was some sort of playoff system in effect. I think the fans get excited about everybody reverting back to the no points and leveling the playing field with 10 (races) to go. I think that it excites them to have a group of guys competing throughout the last 10 races and having it simplified in that aspect. With the old system we’ve seen good championships and with the new system we’ve seen good championships. I don’t believe it really matters how you stack it up. It just comes down to the performance of the drivers. It’s a coincidental situation with the Nationwide Series that those two guys are tied. I wouldn’t read much into it.”
Q: Last week, Tony Stewart said that Brad (Keselowski) had a death wish at the end of the race with the way he was pushing it to the limit. Is that just Brad's nature?
DEJ: “I was really impressed from what I saw from both drivers at the end of that race. I think you saw both of them dig down and produce results that you don’t see on an everyday basis. Some of the most incredible racing that I’ve seen in a long time between two guys in a situation like that. I was fortunate enough to be close enough to see it and it was quite something to see.”
Q: What makes Jimmie (Johnson) so good?
DEJ: “You could come up with a bunch of different reasons and not really be correct. You think about his history on dirt and in the truck, how that must have helped him understand incredible car control. He spent years and years on dirt and that’s the best way to go to school on car control. He has incredible car control. He understands exactly where the grip level is, where the slip angles are, and how to get right up against them and carry it through the whole corner. He’ll tell you also that he has a great team around him. He’s been with this team from the start. They’ve built a great group and been able to maintain that. They complement Jimmie just as well as he complements them.”
Q: Where do you think Brad (Keselowski) would be today if Ted Musgrave hadn't gotten suspended for that one race where Brad got in the truck and showed what he could do?
DEJ: “I think he would probably have made it still but it might have just taken a little bit longer. It might have taken a while to get that opportunity. That was definitely the key moment. He was driving that No. 23 car in the Nationwide Series, and he qualified 10th at Bristol. Then I saw him race at Atlanta and move around on the race track to find speed in the car, was racing against guys that had better equipment than him. You just see people have glimpses of potential and then he got that opportunity there and made the most of it. He would have won that race had he not been spun out. I felt like when I was calling him that I was probably not the only one at that moment. Whether I was or not I don’t know, but I felt like he brought a lot of awareness to himself and his opportunities and potential to a lot of people, not just myself.”
Q: Where are you at with next year at JR Motorsports? What do you look for beyond Regan Smith running a full season?
DEJ: “I’d like to have two full-time cars with Regan and Cole (Whitt) driving. We’re working really hard to fill sponsorship on the second car. We’ve got a lot of great potential partners that we’ve been speaking to. Cole has done a great job especially since we’ve made the changes we’ve made over there. Cole has really been able to improve. The speed in the car has improved each week. He’s been able to realize what kind of opportunities and things we can do together if we can get everything right. I think we’re really close. Regan is going to come in and give us a veteran in leadership from a driver standpoint. I’d really love to have both those guys. We’ve got Regan ready to go in a full deal. We’re just trying to piece together enough partnerships and people that are excited about our opportunities in the future with Cole for next year and we’ll move forward. I’m going to run a handful of races.”
Q: How much does it help to have Regan around the track hanging out with the team now and going over to JR Motorsports?
DEJ: “He brings a better presence. He understands what the job is, what he needs to do. He’s really confident. So, I think that’s good for the team to see. It gets the team excited.”
Q: Is this the kind of season where you're going to be kind of happy that it's over?
DEJ: “No. I wish we were going to race on. I’d just race on through to February and start back over again if it were up to me. I really enjoy being at the track and driving cars. It’s been a good year, but this should be par for the course. It’s been a good year, but we want to be a lot better than this. I’m not ready to stop trying to be better.”
Q: Can you describe what it is like to be in the zone? You and Steve (Letarte, crew chief) started out so strong and won Michigan.
DEJ: “There’s confidence between me and him that we’re going to show up and do well, and confidence is real important. We work really well together. When he’s on top of his game and I’m on top of my game we’re a really competitive team.”
Q: How are you looking at Phoenix here this weekend?
DEJ: “I really don’t know. I haven’t run well since they repaved it. We’ve got a completely different setup than we ran here earlier this year. So right now I’m just anxious to get in the car and see what we can do.”
Q: Do you think Jimmie (Johnson) is going to win the championship? Is there maybe one strength that the No. 2 team has that maybe the No. 48 doesn't?
DEJ: “Not knowing any better. Maybe that’s one. Not really knowing any better and being open-minded to anything. They’re pretty risky too. He’ll stay out on two tires, no tires; try to run himself out of gas, and all kinds of crazy stuff. They are willing to really gamble. That makes them kind of dangerous in that aspect.”
Q: What's the biggest challenge here under this configuration?
DEJ: “I really haven’t been able to find good grip in the front of the car that creates speed. The front of the car is real harsh in the corners and just takes the grip out of the front tires. You blow through the front tires real easy.”
Q: Brad (Keselowski) said the other day that you had him sign a clause in his contract when he worked for you that said he couldn't write a book about your experiences, I guess. Any experiences you don't want him writing about?
DEJ: “I don’t have anything that I would rather him not write about. I think he was telling a lie to be honest with you. We’ve had some fun times together, and he grew up a lot when he was around us. I’ll tell you that.”
Q: How so?
DEJ: “I don’t know. He hadn’t been exposed to a whole lot when we got a hold of him. All he had ever done was race cars and we took him to town and got him some clothes, dressed him up and showed him what was going on. I don’t know. It wasn’t too much. It wasn’t too crazy. He’s pretty outgoing now. I don’t know if you guys really remember just how shy and introverted he was when he first started racing for us, and he’s quite the comedian these days. He’s really outspoken, so he’s changed quite a bit.”
Q: So you're taking credit for his dress style at the Myers Brother's Luncheon last year?
DEJ: “No. He wasn’t working for me then.”
Q: You talk about how you want to keep racing. How many years did you end the year that way, where you wanted to keep going?
DEJ: “Only a few. Not many. Probably about 30 percent of the years I’ve ran. I’m excited about next year. I’m excited about opportunities with the new car and working on the new car. I’m ready to go testing. I’m just not ready to sit down.”